For Worse

More Perfect Unions
The American Search for Marital Bliss
Rebecca L. Davis
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 336 pp.

American couples’ ambitions for personally fulfilling marriages have never been higher nor—given the high rates of divorce—more elusive.

Thus, as Rebecca Davis tells us in her history of marriage counseling, it is no surprise that engaged and married couples increasingly have turned to experts to help them anticipate and navigate the peaks and valleys of married life. In the early 1990s, she notes, 4.6 million Americans sought professional help with their marriages, and fifty-six thousand licensed marital therapists stood ready to provide such help. Their numbers may be even higher today.

Despite its popular appeal, however, marriage counseling has done little to boost marital happiness or success. According to Davis, marriage experts have fostered the “uniquely American obsession” with marriage but have done very little to improve the lives of married couples. In her telling, the main reason is ideological. Over the course of eight decades, marriage counseling has been captive to reactionary forces that have done more harm than good.

Marriage counseling emerged in the 1930s but, as Davis explains, the first marriage counselors were not much interested in counseling or marriage. They were eugenicists, physicians, and reformers whose main mission was to change the sexual and reproductive behavior of married couples. Botanist Paul Popenoe, founder of one of the first marriage-counseling centers, fought for legal sterilization of the “unfit” while...

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About the Author

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (Knopf), directs the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values.